In the observation is the judgement.
Get off your ass and knock on doors.
–Harry Bosch, Homicide Detective, Open-Unsolved Unit, LAPD
A confession many of us must make: We can’t wait for the next Harry Bosch novel from Michael Connelly, former reporter and crime journalist. The latest in a long line, The Crossing, is one of Connelly’s best.
Must Connelly be a quiet sin for “sophisticated” readers? Is he merely the best among Cornwell, Grafton, et al.? Is he sheer Pop?
Connelly has sold nearly sixty million books, writes in an understated style, and is a staunch realist in a literary period in which Thomas Pynchon’s LA P.I., Doc Sportello, seems almost ordinary in his fog-bound epistemology through which Truth is ever undiscovered. A near legendary and maverick homicide detective in the elite Open-Unsolved Unit of the LAPD Homicide Division, Harry Bosch stands athwart many of today’s literary heroes. He is an instinctive, unquestioning realist. A fact is a fact is a fact for Harry. “The evil that men do” is one of those facts: a psychopath is a psychopath is a psychopath. Money, power and sex are most often the stuff of motive. There is rarely a perfect murder: in any decent homicide investigation–“decent” does not insure a solution–a sign pointing to the guilty is always present, awaiting detection but only through a masterful sleuthing which involves observation, exploration and an intuitive methodology impossible to characterize in a training manual.
In sum: the Harry Bosch novels are dramas of Analysis. The suspense lies in Harry’s methodology. Typically he starts with the “murder books”–the archived early records of failed investigations within which must be the signs pointing to the Truth–and sallies forth to knock on doors and visit old crime scenes in search of overlooked indications, angling off to look for knowledge on the Internet and through the ubiquitous cameras in urban settings, and from there to grill suspects. He is especially ever alert for misdirection ploys by the guilty. In The Crossing he solves the case after he learns through analyzing a photo that an expensive wristwatch is missing in the home of a murdered woman, a fact hitherto overlooked.
Bosch dramatizes sleuthing methodology grippingly, talking of such issues as how it is that many detectives eventually close prematurely on “solutions” and suffer “subtle tunnel vision.” He emphasizes points of “crossing,” the instants when murderer and murdered happened to come within range of one another. He shows the revelatory power of composing timelines. He integrates imagery, audio, interviews, and background knowledge–a form of intelligence analysis. Bosch is the no-nonsense, dogged Analyst-Activist as Hero.
Connelly, a dramatist of cognition, writes in an understated style that emphasizes narration–the paring down of the action to its essential points–rather than the other three forms also to be found in any novel–description, scene and dialog. (Raymond Chandler, Connelly’s major rival as the best American mystery writer [and discussed elsewhere in the present blog], is peerless in description and, as Capote and others have said, not very notable in plotting [which is to say, in part, narrating].) Connelly is a master at condensing complicated thinking and characteristic action into brief, dramatic form, as exemplified in these passages from The Crossing:
In the age of electronic data compilation and storage, the LAPD still kept a tradition of logging every murder in a leather-bound journal. The journals had been religiously kept since September 9, 1899, when a man named Simon Christenson was found dead on a downtown railroad bridge–the first recorded murder in LAPD’s history. Detectives at the time believed Christenson had been beaten to death and then placed on the tracks so a train would hit his body and the killing would look like a suicide. It was a misdirection that didn’t work, yet no one was ever charged with the murder.
Bosch had read through the journal regularly when he worked in RHD (Robbery-Homicide Division). It was a hobby of sorts, to read the paragraph or two written about every murder that had been recorded. He had committed Christenson’s name to memory. Not because it was the first murder, but because it was the first and it was never solved. It always bothered Bosch that there had been no justice for Simon Christenson.
These marvelously selective passages telescope all we need to know about Harry Bosch as literary Hero dramatizing a theme. In our period of skepticism and the relentless deluge of information, leading many writers and other artists to compose tales of Confusion in the Fog, Desperation amidst the Din, Futility in Pursuit of Meaning, Bosch stands for the old, timeless conviction that Truth is Accessible. It’s not an especially popular idea in the highbrow literature of our era, but Connelly posits it in a dazzling set of novels in which the usual literary flourishes are subordinated to a straightforward style of down-to-earth observation and action. The style eminently suits the conviction. Apropos, Aristotle in his “observation” meant that you solve problems through earthbound detection, not airy principles, principles that since his realism and in the endless swings to and fro in Philosophy have often invoked Skepticism and a flight from realism.
It’s not that Connelly is unable to describe well; he does so thematically and selectively, and hence there is a horrific example composed from crime scene photos of a murder victim in The Crossing, a jarring portrait which brings a deep anger in Bosch and dramatizes how fundamental Connelly is in the Bosch novels and why he is far more than a Pop novelist:
…Long after her defenses were down and she was incapacitated, she was struck over and over with a hard object. The face of the victim in the photos bore no resemblance to the face Bosch had seen accompanying the many newspaper stories generated by her murder. …The nose was literally gone, interred in the pulp of blood and tissue that had been her face. Both eye sockets were crushed and misshapen, pieces of broken teeth and bone shone brightly in the blood. The eyes were half-lidded and the normal singular focus was broken….
Bosch will use his own singular focus to solve this atrocity.
Connelly is a serious writer.